John FitzGerald: Workable climate policy must chime across borders

Ireland, North and South, would benefit by copying best British policies

Unless the more polluting choice becomes the more expensive choice, we  have little incentive to change our ways. Photograph: Getty Images

Unless the more polluting choice becomes the more expensive choice, we have little incentive to change our ways. Photograph: Getty Images

 

The pandemic has shown us that working together on the island could produce better outcomes for the population North and South, even if has proved difficult to deliver. Another area where co-ordinated North-South measures could produce good results is climate action.

And even better results could be achieved if climate policies were better aligned, not only on this island but also across Ireland and the UK as a whole.

In 2011 the UK government introduced a special levy on electricity in Britain that resulted in dramatically-reduced emissions of greenhouse gases. For Northern Ireland environmental policy is a devolved responsibility. Stormont opted not to raise electricity prices through such a levy, a choice that not only resulted in higher emissions than otherwise north of the Border but also indirectly in the Republic. By going it alone from Britain the environment on both sides of the Border suffered.

ESRI research has shown that because of the single market for electricity on the island, an electricity tax imposed in Northern Ireland would have resulted in higher electricity prices in the Republic, with the UK government receiving all the extra revenue raised.

That would effectively have forced the Republic to apply a similar tax on “dirty” electricity generation to get its share of the higher prices to Irish consumers. The outcome would have been the earlier closure of all coal and peat power stations, and a major reduction in southern greenhouse gas emissions.

The EU (including ourselves) and the UK are setting ambitious targets for the next decade and beyond to reduce emissions. Brussels, Westminster and Dublin are all preparing legislation to enshrine such targets and actions to deliver them.

But to achieve policy consistency within the UK, and on this island, Stormont would need to do likewise.

Fossil fuel cars

The UK government is planning to ban the sale of fossil fuel cars from 2030. After that date Ireland could become a dumping ground for new petrol or diesel vehicles unless both we and Stormont enact similar bans.

A co-ordinated ban across the island on the sales of coal and peat could reduce emissions from home heating at little cost. Already Britain has tight controls. We could opt to ban sales of these fuels from 2025, broadly in line with London’s policy, along with introducing a special scheme to retrofit the small number of homes which use these fuels as their primary heating method.

However, unless the North enacted a similar measure there would inevitably be cross-Border traffic in dirty fuels.

When I last visited Northern Ireland around a year ago I was struck by the number of establishments just across the Border selling smoky coal and other high-emission fuels. Co-ordinated action North and South would significantly reduce emissions, as well as improving air quality in our cities and towns.

The examples above are ones where Ireland as a whole, North and South, would benefit by copying progressive British environmental policies.

There may be other areas where our policies may be the more environmentally-friendly ones for others to copy. The Oireachtas has committed to using the price mechanism to progressively steer our citizens and our businesses to more climate-friendly choices through steadily raising taxes on carbon over the coming decade.

While a range of different climate actions are needed, unless the more polluting choice becomes the more expensive choice we have little incentive to change our ways.

Although the UK has a lot of progressive proposals, and has set itself very tough targets on emissions reduction, UK energy policy expert Dieter Helm has argued that the UK will fail in its objectives unless it too raises the price of carbon.

Price mechanism

A UK-wide carbon tax would apply to Northern Ireland. However, as with the electricity price example I have given, if Westminster chooses another form of price mechanism it would be for Northern Ireland to decide whether it would follow suit.

Similarly, any solo run by Northern Ireland in refraining from raising carbon prices would create problems for the Republic, leading to cross-Border sourcing of dirty fuels and higher emissions across Ireland.

While our climate and energy policies sit within the broader EU policy context and EU climate action, in some cases we can still watch and learn from the UK. Given our unique geographical position it also matters a lot to us whether the devolved Stormont administration shares the UK’s approach to tackling climate change or pursues climate action less vigorously.

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